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  More Revelations Coming on Clergy Sex Abuse, Panelists Warn
'Hundreds of Priests Have Found Safe Harbor' in Connecticut

By Allison Frank
The Day [East Lyme CT]
February 9, 2004

East Lyme Most people who flocked to the Days Inn here Sunday for a panel discussion on clergy sexual abuse had, until then, heard only second-hand about victims' stories.

But on Sunday the local chapter of a national church reform group put a face on the issue by bringing in victims of clergy sexual abuse an issue that experts say is going to explode again on Feb. 27. That is the scheduled released date for the results of a nationwide survey on the number of known or suspected abusers since 1950. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City surveyed all American Catholic dioceses to prepare the report, which will be released by the U.S. Catholic bishops.

The five members on Sunday's panel, organized by the Voice of the Faithful of Eastern Connecticut, predict the numbers will be staggering. And this time, said Anne Barrett-Doyle, a member of VOTF's national voting council, Connecticut residents should brace for the scandal to hit the state full force.

"You're about to learn that hundreds of priests have found safe harbor" in Connecticut, said Barrett-Doyle, who has worked with victims through an advocacy group she helped found called Coalition of Catholics and Survivors.

Over the past decade in Connecticut, 47 priests, one nun and one seminarian have been accused of sexual abuse charges, according to a national VOTF database.

Some residents at Sunday's meeting cautioned that allegations should be treated as such, and that priests should be given the benefit of the doubt until proven guilty.

"Catholics in general don't want to hear stories of abuse. They're in denial," said the Rev. Robert Hoatson, a New Jersey chaplain who was in the audience Sunday. A former victim of clergy sexual abuse, he said, he is the coordinator for the central New Jersey chapter of the national Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

Some panelists said the majority of Catholics seem indifferent to victims' plight. They said the focus has shifted away from the victim and onto counseling abusive priests and reforming the church. Both are important, the panelists said, but they should be secondary to helping victims and preventing further abuse of children at the hands of clergy.

While the U.S. Catholic bishops have enacted a zero-tolerance policy, in the 1990s some dioceses transferred known sex offenders to other dioceses. Panelist Susan Gallagher, a professor of gender studies at the University of Massachusetts, said the priest who molested her and her brother was sent to work at a children's camp in New Jersey after being treated in 1995 for pedophilia.

"To hear it first-hand gives it a whole other depth of strength," said Grace Marrion, VOTF chapter assistant moderator, after listening to the victims' stories.

The panel encouraged the audience of about 90 people, mostly Catholics, to get involved with efforts to identify pedophile priests. David Cerulli, a panelist who said he was raped and sodomized by a priest in the Diocese of Allentown, Pa., when he was 14, told Catholics to demand that bishops publicize the names of known sex offenders in their dioceses. The panel also urged the audience to lobby state lawmakers and government officials for change in the way clergy sexual abuse cases are handled.

"If you're raped," Gallagher said, "don't call the bishop, call the police. If you want to help, go outside the church. This is not a Catholic problem. We need all denominations. It's a social problem, a justice problem."

Panelist Landa Mauriello-Vernon of Hamden encouraged the crowd to be vigilant, and to report suspected cases of abuse. Mauriello-Vernon, the director of the newly formed Connecticut SNAP, told the audience she was abused by a nun during her senior year at a Catholic high school. Mauriello-Vernon said the nun brainwashed her into thinking she wanted to join the convent and performed sexual acts on her under the guise of mentorship. The abuse took place behind closed doors, she said, but the school community knew about it.

"My junior year, I was a normal girl," Mauriello-Vernon told the crowd. "Then this nun befriended me and all my relationships fell apart. All I wanted to do was enter the convent."

Paul Baier, who is not a victim but helped found VOTF and Survivors First, Inc., a national advocacy group for survivors, was also on the panel.

Residents who lingered after the two-hour panel discussion said it was good to hear victims' stories in person.

"We needed to be educated," said Mary Ellen Smith, a VOTF member who chairs a survivor's support committee. "Sometimes you think you understand an issue, but there's a lot we don't know."

 
 

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